Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Landfall Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Mason Newcomb walked under the right wing surface of the ALV I along with nearly the rest of the company who were all there with reports in hand and looking at the craft. It had been gone over thoroughly for a week by the entire Ascentech engineering and technology staff, plus a team of five members from the DOGIS support organization that specialized in aircraft design and testing. In that week they had generated up volumes of data, which Brent and Tamara had to distill into a few pages with key areas for critical design changes. As he looked up to where the wing and fuselage merged, he saw Ares come out from under the main cargo space, which had its doors opened. The entire vehicle was in a neutral buouyancy mode, which meant that it was floating just a few feet above the ground via tethers from the ceiling and the floor.

"I can see the beginning of stress fractures at the join," Ares said, "and that isn't good."

Mason nodded opening the report and checking off an item.

"The airflow here became turbulent during the thrust phase. ALV II will have to be far more of a swept dart shape, much closer to a flying wing."

Ares raised an eyebrow as Tamara came from the front of the vehicle looking along the surface before the wing joint.

"No signs of fabric delamination visible," she said crouching a bit to look at the open bay door at the underside of the craft.

"That is interior," Mason said, "sub-standard work and a poor choice of materials. Carbon fibers can do many things, but there are times when a simple curing ceramic epoxy is what you want."

Light stands stood inside the bay area, and Tamara supplemented that with a flashlight as she got to the lowest point of the vehicle and laid down to examine the edges close up. Mason turned away to look back at the wing and went forward to examine its leading surface, so as not to stare at how Tamara's skirt had shifted as she was on the floor.

"What was used here? There's some bubbling but its not from the fabric. It looks like a coating of some sort."

Ares raised an eyebrow as he watched Tamara use her feet to shift her body along the floor. While the jacket she had on could take time on the concrete he did wonder about the integrity of the skirt material and positioning, or lack thereof, of the other garments in that region.

"Simple alumabond cover with fiber cement. It did fine for stitching on the outside and has a good metallic join with the aluminized mylar skin. Heat conduction caused problems with the cement and fiber, still under critical for combustion but not a proper mix to utilize for the work."

She examined the edge of the bay door and peered at it.

"The report is right, a real heat sealing between substrates is preferable here."

A soft whisper came to Ares as he looked down at Tamara.

"Getting a good view, brother?" Diana asked in a way that he knew could only be heard by him.

He nodded.

"Yes, Diana, a thorough inspection of the skin can only be performed by manual entrance into the bay opening," he said in a calm tone turning to her and smiling.

She pressed her lips together as she watched Tamara shift her legs around to roll out from under the bay door.

"Of course, Aaron, it is the only way to be sure."

Diana was in a jeans and light workshirt outfit, and nodded to Tamara as she crouched down to get into the bay opening and then use the small step ladder to get into the bay to examine it. Meanwhile Tamara had rolled thoroughly under the door and watched as Diana inspected the bay, the thin but athletic legs showing a ripple of muscle through the thighs as Diana leveraged herself to the top of the ladder and then used a hand to pull herself up the main bay retaining post. The vehicle gently moved a fraction as she did this, her weight just barely changing its bouyancy. Tamara nearly gasped as Diana swung herself fully up to the opened inspection hatch and then climbed into the interior of the craft.

"Uh... Diana? I don't think the inspection includes going..."

Diana's legs and boots disappeared into the tube and then she moved her head out to look back at Tamara.

"The schematics are very clear on what is safe and what isn't. Don't worry, Tamara, I'll be OK. Just want a close-up of the interior tank systems since their contact surfaces are indicated as having friction wear on them. Be right back!"

ALV-I had its remaining fuel unloaded, of course, but its electrical system was still fully operational and the bouyancy system was functioning which meant there could be unannounced changes in ballast fluid or release of helium. Tamara really didn't know how old Diana was, but she seemed a bit too young to be crawling around inside the craft, which was something only technicians with safety equipment did. She shifted nervously from foot to foot as she realized that if anything went wrong it could damage the craft. The minutes dragged on as she heard Diana moving around inside the vehicle.

A bell rung and Brent's voice could be heard on the loudspeaker system.

"That is it for the hour of looking over the vehicle. In ten minutes we'll have a wrap-up and discussion of future vehicles."

Diana came out of the access tube and sat on the edge of it as she looked down at the ladder, and then swung her legs out as she lowered herself to it. Tamara just shook her head as she watched Diana come down and then stood smiling as she got off of the ladder.

"You really ought to know better than doing that sort of thing," Tamara said as she looked at the pale smiling face.

"I do," Diana said, "but that never stopped me. Come on, I want to see the reaction of Alice and her design crew to the proposed new ALV-II system. She's been grumbling about it since the initial design proofs came through yesterday and I'll bet that she doesn't like the new timeline and vehicle set one bit."

Tamara chuckled as she crouched out from open bay and under the wing of ALV-I.

"It isn't that she doesn't like it, you know?" she said as Diana joined her standing up and finding Hermes and Regina there obviously waiting for them.

"Oh, no, it isn't that at all," Hermes said, "the problem with it is that she didn't design it and couldn't the way things were headed. The Desert Rats have changed all those lovely, slow build up plans, and now it is time for protestations and declaiming of the process."

Diana reached back for the band at her ponytail and took it off, letting her black hair fall freely back into place.

"Without the Rats no one would have found those Saberliner spares, there are a lot of those jets out there but getting those ones with the fuel economy and high altitude compressors is a real find," she said as the group started walking towards the exit door held open by Ray Kaplan.

"I've never even heard of most of this stuff," Regina said as they walked.

"Neither have I, but I'm a quick study," Diana said looking over to her as she walked arm-in-arm with Hermes.

Hermes smiled looking at Regina and then Diana.

"It isn't just the jets and parts, its how they propose to use them. ALV-II will be unique in many ways, not just for its propulsion mode but lift capacity, as well. Those rockets, however, will still be put to good use, though. Just not yet."

Tamara looked over at him as they got to the door.

"Really? What will they be used for?"

He looked back and winked.

"Joy riding."

Diana chuckled.

"No, ALV-III."

Hermes shrugged as they went out the door and Ray Kaplan joined them.

"Same thing, more or less."


Alice Chalmers had been feeling awash with emotions over the last two weeks starting with the attractive if somewhat austere Aaron Culpepper, who had started turning the place upside-down after his buy-in to the company. That and the portion that Diana held would not be a majority stake at that point, although the work being done by DOGIS on behalf of the MTT was an in-kind payment that left her feeling as if the two of them now had more of a stake in the company than its founders. Ascentech could never, ever, have purchased such help with their funding line before Aaron had bought into it, and now that he had she felt that the company was becoming something different than what it started out to be. That start had been the hard-scrabble drafting of an idea, putting a business plan to it and getting funding for it. It was a dream that went to digital and paper copies and then had to be fleshed out with whatever staffing they could afford plus a very small scale model just to show this could work at the scale of what could fit in a garage. Before the economic downturn it was hard to find good engineering staff... after the downturn it was hard to find good money to pay the staff they had.

As she sat at the main meeting table she looked at Bill, who was the first investor on the project, and he was talking to Brent from DOGIS. If Aaron Culpepper had been an austere shock to her, and to a few others, Brent was someone who spoke their language and had a select group he could contact to just get some work done that would take weeks for Ascentech to do. The days that he helped to interface between his design group, somewhere in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Ascentech team were a blur even as they were going on. Between getting the ALV-I checked out and prepped, actually getting its flight going, and then the week of after-action work, there had been more technology work and analysis done than the entire company had done in the previous year. She was loathe to give up on the original ALV-II and III path heading towards the Pegasus since that was a pure step-by-step movement along a single technology path of using better and more robust long thrust, low impetus rockets over time to get to the final vehicle that would allow for a separate rocket system to do the final air to orbit work. Stress on the wing joints would mean larger carbon fiber pipes and tubing, with more cross-braces and that meant more weight, which reduced payload...

Alice had worked at NASA/Ames after her degree in aerospace engineering from CalTech, and then shopped that over to Boeing for a few more years until she had finally had enough of bureaucrats and their overhead. She knew she was able to compete with the best of designers on pure engineering and aviation technology and she wanted the ALV to be just a mixed semi-dirigible to final launch system that had the semi-dirigible recoverable and the launch vehicles be an expendable or adaptable to recovery system. Growing up with the Space Shuttle she realized just how outdated it was when she had gotten to CalTech and the inelegant design, even for its era, grated on her. This sort of thing can and should be done leaner, easier and with lower cost per pound and it could be if you adapted technology and scrapped the overhead.

Nearly a decade of work had told her that and Ascentech was hers to draft and make, and her friend Bill Mankin, who had become gainfully unemployed from McDonnell-Douglas by his own choice, threw in his skill and what machining he had to help get some mock-ups done on the cheap. Then came Harold Nordhaus, one of the middle-aged computer executives who cashed out when the cashing was good and went after his dream of aircraft design. Once they had some basics down and finalized, they brought in Ray Kaplan who put VC money in and tried to convince others to help.

The VC world of banking and investment for start-ups was foreign territory to her and the number of other firms working in this area to get X-Prize money was draining VC cash to them. Ray also approched two other ventures working along similar lines to Ascentech, but they were already in their first build phases and as cash strapped as they were. Even as her bank account was dwindling, as was that of Bill, Ray kept on knocking at doors until a land trust came knocking at his. All of the warehouse/factory space, equipment, heating and lighting for it, all of it was necessary to get things really going and all of it had come out of the pockets of that trust and the person leading it, Diana Sherwood.

She watched as Harry came in with the chief of vehicle construction, Kevin Penk who had been working for DHL in aircraft maintenance before they started cutting out hubs and routes. What the rest of the original team lacked in avionics, he brought in as part of his background, as well as the all important safety and construction experience you get by tearing down large aircraft for system overhauls. Together, with a few others, they burned through money and, she suspected, Diana's patience with Ascentech. Every little redesign required testing, simulation, mock-ups... over and over and over.

Everyone else trickled in until the last grouping of Ray with the two trust representatives and that odd man Herman Lassiter and his wife, Regina came in. Alice was perplexed by them as they had, apparently, owned a night club in San Francisco and gave that up to come and work with Ascentech. Alice had researched what she could of Mr. Lassiter and he had been in the small jet racing circuit after being in speedboat racing realm before that. After that records became skimpy although a mention of a Herman Lassiter winning the Favola Endurance Race in 2000 did seem to cement his claim to having been doing that, as well. He did have many sponsors, and he also seemed hooked into some investment houses, although those connections only seemed to become more diffuse the more she looked. His wife looked to be a 20-something rich kid that dropped out of college and while she was mildly attractive, she didn't seem to be hitting in the same mental ballpark as Herman.

During the after-action time Herman had taken part, but been pretty silent, just pointing out some structural faults here and there, and asking behind the design of the interior bracing structure of the ALV-I. During the redesign sessions, however, he engaged that topic fully and started pulling out concepts of dynamic flexing used in wishbone suspension systems and other ways to dynamically shift force over the entire frame of the vehicle. It was a shock to Alice, Bill and most of the rest of the team that a mere high speed pilot and driver could know so much, until she remembered that the jet division he flew in was the 'custom, unlimited' one. He, apparently, designed jet aircraft from scratch with no real educational background that she could find.

Now Ascentech was, in fact, held by Diana, Aaron and Herman as they had, together, eclipsed Ray and Harry's stake in the company. And with the bond put up for the promised time to profitability in place, that would mean that anyone who took it would, basically, cede their stake to Aaron and Diana. This truly did worry Alice and she knew the only way to change that was to either get more investors, which was pretty much an impossibility until they got a name to themselves, or invest more resources of her own, of which she didn't have much left. Their promise, each of them, was that they were not going to run Ascentech and that it would live and die based on what its founders wanted and they were providing the resources and backing to get that vision in place. As she watched those three along with Tamara, Regina and Ray she saw how easily Ray was at ease with them, Alice knew that if someone like Ray Kaplan, a man who had helped ex-cons start their own businesses in everything from household painting to building custom limos, felt that these people were backing their word and meant it, that she should shelve her worries as well.

Still, as a founder of this dream, she felt that she was losing it, bit by bit, to something different. Even with her agreement and even her backing on the changes, they were changes and her direct dream was fading to commercial realities. She hated that feeling and her long work with Brent and DOGIS had her wrestling with the real world that had to get customers and cash flow along with a solid footing to expand capability.

Ray was talking with Herman, Regina and Tamara when the front receptionist and secretary, Beth Willis, came in and and stepped over to Ray to whisper to him. From across the table she couldn't hear anything with some of the post-inspection cross-talk still going on between members in the room. Ray indicated to the other three to come closer and they started talking animatedly about something with at first quizzical reactions from the others and then deeper puzzlement from Tamara and Regina, while Herman was somewhat more relaxed in his body language and Ray was obviously upset about something. Herman talked to him and to Beth, then Tamara and got some nodding in agreement and Tamara pulling out her cellphone and Regina slung her tablet system forward in its slim satchel and also took it out and put on an ear and mouthpiece as she tapped away on its surface. As they did that Herman and Ray talked with Beth who then nodded and left the room.

Alice didn't know what was going on and as that group got seated, the table quieted down as Ray was to be the lead in for the conclusion and outlook portion of the meeting.

"I hope that you all had a good look at the ALV I and I thank Alice and Brent for their hard work that went into getting the problems and benefits of the current system examined in such detail. There is a large difference between seeing computer models and looking at lines of output and seeing it in physical reality."

"Very true," Ares said shifting his ultramini pc on the table and raising an eyebrow, "and it is through this process that we learn what does work, what doesn't work and what is problematical. Unlike many early aviators we did not have a major design failure in this first prototype, which shows a sound basis for future work."

"The swept wing design can work," Harry said looking around the table, "but it has some dynamic problems at higher altitude. We knew that would be a problem we might have to deal with and its better to be now, at the start, than in a later vehicle. There are many alternatives to the current design and finding a good one, not necessarily the perfect one, for the next stages forward is critical."

Alice looked from Ares to Harry and then to the other end of the table where Regina was nodding as Hermes whispered to her. Tamara was still on the phone, obviously holding on waiting for a response or for someone to get back to her on the other end. Ray leaned forward, looking at Alice.

"Alice, you are the lead technical designer and with Bill you are the leads on the fabrication team. I think all of us have gotten the necessary proposals for a future path that you two have consolidated for us. I know there are favorites for each of you, and each member of the design team, and I would like you to lay those out for us."

Alice smiled and looked at Bill who nodded to her. Alice pressed her lips together and spread out the various design packages that had been distributed to everyone there and picked up the original ALV Proposed Plan.

"Our original proposed plan kept with a swept wing design until ALV-III and the proposed ALV-IV. Along that design path are new fabrication rockets, gimbals, tanks, housings and a plethora of other back-up systems that add mass to get a low impetus, high duration rocketry burn system functioning. Until the ALV-I gains altitude it suffers in having to utilize airflow dynamics from localized air currents and the northern jet stream. The small amount of use from the side thrusters gives us trim and enough thrust to overcome drag which becomes more important with higher altitude. ALV-I cannot quickly gain that altitude due to fears of damage to the frame, which is why the side thrusters were put in. The main thruster system is of the low mass and long duration type made of tungsten and ceramic composites along with a minimally vectored exhaust housing. ALV-I withstood that thrust pretty well, and suffers from the wing joint stress and other stress along some trailing surfaces and lead surfaces at the wingtips. Our rush sealing of other parts of the craft showed, especially in the bay release area and it suffered some hairline fractures in it from drag at altitude. Even with less than 10% and getting closer to 5% of the atmospheric pressure, the atmosphere is still a major problem to deal with."

She nodded to Bill who put out the three design path proposals to go from here.

"ALV-II and III are evolutionary in design type," he said, "continuing with a further swept back wing and increased overall vehicle size. It also relies on rocket systems that haven't been fabricated which is why the ALV I would be a first production vehicle, with whatever modifications we found necessary to reduce long-term overhead cost for it."

"The design milestone plan for the original system," Ares said, "was high on a cost per flight basis and required custom parts that have a lengthy delivery schedule. That is not sustainable for any venture."

Alice turned to him and he was flipping through the three design prospects and not looking at anyone as he spoke. There was a calm assurance in his voice, an easy persuasiveness that was forceful and yet, at the same time, not demanding. His cousin Diana was just beyond him and she was sitting back in her chair with a tablet computer and lights were flickering across her face from it.

"That has also been the problem with getting the prototype system built, as the promised delivery times dragged out as our supplier was laying off personnel. I had talked about that with Alice, Ray and Harry nearly two years ago and we had expected better delivery from our supplier."

"And for it to be on spec," Kevin whispered, "what we have isn't maintainable until we get properly machined chambers and vents."

Brent looked at Kevin and nodded from the other end of the table.

"Bill, if I may, that is part of the reason Mr. Culpepper called on DOGIS to help. The hopes to make the ALV-I a design-type had basically fallen through and that was threatening the rest of the milestone plan. What we propose is to utilize much of the already layed out designs but to spiral up to a final exo-atmospheric vehicle through known stages."

Bill nodded and looked at Alice who shrugged as she was starting to watch Hermes, Regina, Tamara and Ray whisper to each other. Diana slid her chair over next to Hermes and they where obviously whispering to each other, but with not even the hint of a word escaping. Something was obviously going on there and it was hard to concentrate with such by-play. She turned a bit to look at Brent who was checking his laptop screen and then shifting to look at Alice.

"I'm a more than competent engineer, Brent, and I thought I understood the industrial relations between aerospace firms pretty well. We were being given the bureaucratic runaround by one or two firms, and basically being told we were low on the food chain given current contracts. A smaller firm seemed the answer, but..." she trailed off shaking her head, "... I know reality when it slaps me in the face. The DOGIS plans are actually quite good even if not as elegant a path to the final goal."

"You mean compared to mine?" Hermes asked sliding his chair forward to the table and adjusting himself as Regina and Diana whispered behind his back.

"Mr. Lassiter I don't..." Alice began now being thrown off-track in her hopes to at least get everyone to agree on the DOGIS path.

"You didn't have to, Ms. Chalmers, I've been around more than my share of engineers to know professional cold shoulder when I'm given it. So, if you will, what is your critique of the designs I laid out compared to the DOGIS ones?"

Alice was at a loss for a moment as she hadn't thought about it in those terms, merely the comparison of the two alternative plans to her original scheme. Now she was put on the spot as she wasn't being asked to defend her design plan, but to examine each of the others that had come up. One was from a design team of experts, with computer modeling and simulations background and they had gigabytes of data to back them up. Mr. Lassiter's were closer to being physical and engineering structural drawings with overall strain limits and loading capacity given for each pertinent section of the vehicles he had designed out, apparently using a cheap physical modeling program. All of the equations on the data sheets, however, described his vehicle in a way that the DOGIS people couldn't do with theirs, as he was giving all the pertinent flight envelope characteristics and all you had to do was plug in the numbers and find out what would happen across the entire structure. He didn't do that on a computer, she was sure of that, because she had to crack open some sophisticated math tools on her engineering system to actually figure out just what his design path was.

"Well, Mr. Lassiter," she began collecting her thoughts and starting with fundamentals, "your design starts out as a twin engine system for the ALV-II, with some form of wishbone or cantilever system between the wing sides across the cargo bay. I don't think your design is even supersonic rated for that altitude..." she trailed off looking at Bill who just shrugged.

"Actually," Brent said, "it is, but is a very tricky design that uses near airfoil turbulance to move the shockwave generation out to the wing tip extensions. That was something we only got late this morning from our offices in Huntsville as they had been trying to figure out some of the performance equations for the leading wing edge across the vehicle. I thought that the B-2 style design was inherently unstable, by the way, but your suspension system cancels out a large degree of that instability. Due to the compression at supersonic speeds, the entire wing structure becomes very stable at those high speeds with the placement of the engine inlets funneling lower speed and somewhat turbulent air into the system, reducing stress."

He looked at Alice and smiled.

"I didn't think it was either, Alice, and I had my people chasing this down for two days. It takes awhile to churn through the dynamics of multidimensional airflow when interacting between a supersonic outer envelope with a subsonic inner pocket moving within that outer envelope and a thin turbulent buffer between them. This is a hybrid between the YB-49 and B-2 types of flying wing structures of know reference types. For a larger size next vehicle this means added fuel storage while sacrificing some backscatter radar stealth for increased endurance which is natural as this isn't a military vehicle. This design path starts with a unique blended wing body design, unlike anything I have seen outside of proposals from abandoned design projects."

Alice nodded as he talked, working through her mind how those prior designs in the flying wing concept were part of a continuum of design types, which included many other vehicles over the decades since the YB-49 design.

"That is the problem, really. Those projects were abandoned for a reason," Alice said looking from Brent to Hermes, "most of them due to control problems. DOGIS sticks to a more formal delta wing concept that prefers some increased drag to stabilize their design while your design might sacrifice some stability to reduce drag and increase lift. I was never in any of the BWB sections as they tended to be R&D proposal sections, not hardware engineering."

Ares nodded looking at her and smiling, then turning to Hermes as he raised an eyebrow.

"This is built on your work, Ms. Chalmers, as it is you that helped to develop the semi-dirigible concept to the very edge of the atmosphere. I couldn't have thought that up on my own as it is a relatively unique concept that opens up many doors for the aerospace community. This is one of those doors as, at the very attenuated edge of the atmosphere, the semi-dirigible can be treated as a rigid airfoil structure. That took me a few hours to work out, but once done the re-application of known designs returns in that limited envelope that is the boundary between the last of the atmosphere and the beginning of hard vacuum."

"Re-applied?" Kevin asked. "What are you re-applying with this design set?"

Hermes smiled as he looked around the table.

"It isn't so much in the hardware but...ahhh... in the community. There are a set of altitude records held by a certain aircraft with modified jets designed off the Saberliner jet engine lineage. Particularly the post-compressor system and a change in jet fuel type. While we can't manage that craft's speed, we do have the opportunity to break its records that have stood for decades. My design isn't so much just a delivery system but a challenge to the entire aerospace community to see that this is the future both in space and in the last of the atmosphere. It is a happy circumstance that my design proposals make for a more stable launch platform at a much higher altitude than the other ALV-II designs. Once you utilize the semi-dirigible, semi-rigid lower atmosphere design as a basis, the solution for a design that allows a rigid design dynamic shift is apparent and elegant. At that point the next design step is to utilize the original rocketry system in a larger vehicle combined with high altitude jet systems. While it would be nice if there was a hybrid design to switch from jet to rockets in one thrust system, that has been a holy grail for at least 30 years. With that said they are in development and when they are developed and available..."

"... they can be swapped into our designs." Alice whispered as she looked at Hermes who was smiling at her.

"All because of your original work, Ms. Chalmers. I like your original designs, very much, actually. They are good and solid designs. What they don't lead to until your proposed Pegasus design, is a manned system. Because of the amount of volume in my designs, the cargo bay can house a fully integrated manned crew cabin in ALV-II. A platform capable of breaking records, enticing pilots to explore the edge of the atmosphere and push composite materials to their maximum extent."

Alice looked at Ray who was nodding after talking with Regina, and then Regina leaned over to whisper to Hermes who nodded, smiling. Ray looked around the table as he picked up a glass of water.

"We have all had time to discuss the pros and cons of the proposed system variants for awhile now, and I think that we should be able to come to some agreement on which of them is the best way forward. I do have a preference, of course, but the best way forward can't be just a commercial decision," he said glancing at Hermes who was still whispering with Regina, "but one that takes into account all aspects of engineering, acquisition, plus O&M. What I would like after this meeting are separate groups for those aspects of the design paths to give responses on them. I think we are all going to be sitting in on at least two of each of those teams, so we may have to stagger the meetings a bit. Can we all agree on that?"

Harry nodded, "Twenty minutes should be it for each team, I think. I just want to remind everyone that the best engineering path may have a higher cost to it than a sub-optimal one. And the Engineering and Design team or teams need to be able to give a quick comparison between milestone schedules because new fabrication will tend to push out design schedules as we have already found out."

He looked around the table and got nodding of heads in agreement from everyone and then looked back at Ray.

"Ray, we can probably break from this meeting and head to the sub-meetings."

"Yes we can, Harry. We do have one consideration on the commercial side, however, that we need to address before that. I had a short talk with Beth at our front office and we have a problem in that our website crashed today..."

"Its rehosted and back up now," Regina said looking up from her display.

Ray smiled.

"You do work quickly, thank you, Regina."

Regina was obviously whispering into her mouthpiece and nodded.

"Traffic is up but steady," she said, "Tamara asked Beth to get us the people hosting your website locally, and then we duped it over to the rackers we used for our club. They have quad T-3s and I've lost track of how much data they can host, but its in the exabyte range. That website won't go down, now."

Alice sat back as she understood much of the terminology but never expected it to be used for their company. "What brought down the site?" she asked.

"I have that now," Tamara said looking at Hermes who smiled, "and sent it to Herman, Regina and Diana to review. I'm hooked into the display system for the room, so if you would like I can show it on the screen."

"Please do, Tamara," Ray said, "I've only gotten glances of it, but have an idea of its content."

"And that is what matters, of course," Hermes said, "content is king in this instance."

Project displays flashed off from the overhead projector, the side speakers kicked into life and there was a faint hum until the projection started.

An older man in a mechanic's outfit walked onto the image and a display of a semi-trailer being loaded was behind him.

"I'm Big Tom Larson from Shining Desert Auto Salvage and Parts, and y'all know me as the leading supplier of obscure parts for the customizer in all of Arizona if not the entire US."

"Oh, no," Bill whispered.

"That's our semi-trailer we used for..." Kevin said and trailed off.

"Our goal is to get YOU the parts needed for YOUR project on time. We can ship it to you or you can come and pick it up yourself and, heck, we'll even help you load it."

The compressed time sequence showed the DeSoto being loaded, and then the major tubing sections attached, with people scurrying around it from dawn until the truck left at dusk. Big Tom walked off as the scene shifted and the view was from the main camera watching the cargo drop of ALV-I.

"Our goal is to avoid the sky-high prices of our competitors..."

Alice was watching, stunned, as the cargo pod descended and there was the Shining Desert Auto Salvage and Parts logo with is black roadster in clear view on the side of the pipe. The pipe dropped and became smaller and smaller until the scene switched to the on-board exterior camera.

"... and bring them back down to Earth. And we will deliver anywhere, for any project you can think of..."

As the piping broke away the whispy sound of a horn kicking out the opening notes of Dixieland could be faintly heard.

"That is a nice touch, really," Ray said softly.

"Yes, perfect for the presentation," Herman replied.

Big Tom continued on, "... even if that is one hundred miles off the coast of Pitcairn Island in the middle of the Pacific..."

Here a small camera inside the vehicle saw the hood fly up and off, followed by a burst of confetti, and the blue of the Pacific Ocean came to dominate the screen with clouds in-between. The clock was going much faster than normal speed on the lower right as the camera captured the final impact of the vehicle at terminal velocity before it was destroyed along with the car.

"... because at Shining Desert Auto Salvage and Parts, our goal is to make sure we have a satisfied customer each and every time. Because we don't take returns."

The commercial ended with the logo of Shining Desert Auto Salvage and Parts on the screen with their three convenient locations in Arizona, and the over ten thousand acres they devote to auto salvage, along with address and phone numbers.

"That hit on a local commercial station two hours ago and was reposted on at least three major user media sites on the 'net," Tamara said.

A graph flashed onto the screen showing the total hits at each of the sites and the Ascentech hits as its logo was visible on much of the video. About ten minutes after the commercial started to get hits in the thousands range, Ascentech was getting hits in the hundreds range per hour until it went to zero a half-hour ago and then reappeared with thousands of initial hits which was steadying off.

"I had to rehost your email address, too," Regina said, "right now everyone sending in an email is getting a simple thank you for your response until we can dig through them."

"No wonder I couldn't send an outgoing," Bill said.

"Yes, well that is a minor concern, really," Hermes said, "as I am quite sure that for all the lovely X-Prize awards and minor media attention of the other players, none of them have had anything like this to show for their first outing. I do suggest so as not to disappoint future customers, that we put a priority on shortest milestone timelines with the most vehicles that can be constructed in the shortest period of time. As it is the ALV I will have to be used for our first funerary load, and we could use a second one of those vehicles in another month."

Ares looked to Hermes.

"You did this on purpose," it was a flat statement, not a question.

Hermes smiled and nodded.

"I even suggested to Big Tom that it would be worth his while to put a camera in the car with a satellite uplink. I was more than willing to pay for that out of my own pocket, of course, as I have enjoyed time in a hotrod or two. Returning favors is always a plus in business, like Big Tom said it leads to repeat customers. I'm sure we will be expected to figure out how to soft land some vehicles to remote parts of the world in a few weeks..."

"What...?" Alice asked very softly as she knew that there was only one proposed system that would meet compressed timelines and enhanced delivery of systems early, and it wasn't hers.

"My dear Ms. Chalmers, you wanted to get into aerospace freight haulage on the cheap, and aimed for space, first. I am far more practical and I think we can start doing retail of delivery for cut-rate costs on a global basis for the air part of aerospace far sooner. Really, I am impressed by all your original designs! But I do think that everyone here overlooked just a few items, and now it is time to set them right."

Hermes smiled the smile of a cat that had just caught its favorite prey and was going to set it loose again for another round of chasing. For him it wasn't the success that mattered, but the pursuit, and if you can arrange to be the pursued and stymie that pursuit, then one begins to wonder just which is the predator and which the prey. That is why he constantly watched Road Runner cartoons, much to the chagrin of Regina, and pointed out that Acme really had missed its calling.


Maria Schilling sat next to her mother in the offices of the Samuel & Son funeral home in Cincinnati, OH. Her husband was sitting in a chair next to her in the office while her mother was on the sofa next to her and her brother, Paul Isaacs sat on the other side of the sofa, with his wife Delilah sitting on a chair next to the sofa near him. In front of them was a low coffee table with leather bound brochure booklets that had pockets on the inside for additional information. Jerry Samuel Sr. sat on a chair across from them, leaning over the table to hand her mother a kerchief from his pocket.

"I am glad you came to us, Mrs. Isaacs, as we've known your family from church services for decades. Your help with Mrs. Frampton three years ago was more than we could have asked as her children had moved far enough overseas that they could not return even on short notice."

Maria had her arm across Elizabeth Isaacs back as she dabbed at her eyes. Paul held her left hand, which she grasped and smiled as she looked at Mr. Samuel.

"No one expected Ben to die while he was out fishing. He was out on the lake early in the morning and when Tommy," she looked at Paul who smiled and nodded about how his eldest son found his grandfather, "got down to the dock the boat had drifted back to it. Ben was sitting back just like he always did, and only when Tommy couldn't..."

She lowered her head and sobbed softly.

"I do understand Mrs. Isaacs, none can say when our time is at an end. Ben loved fishing almost as much as he loved going to those gatherings during the summer. Since his early retirement, he had a full life and to go like this was shocking and yet, at the same time, fitting for him."

"Yes he did, Mr. Samuel, and now... we had talked about what to do if he pre-deceased me and its just hard..."

Maria hugged her mother to her and she put her hand on Maria's knee.

"Dad had talked to us about it, too, Mr. Samuel and he had wanted a traditional service but cremation after," she said looking to Paul who was picking up one of the brochure booklets and opening it. Her husband Terrance picked the near one up and started flipping through it, nodding as he went. After flipping through the glossy pages he took out brochures from local crematoria and their associated services which he looked at one at a time, placing them back in the pocket they came from inside the booklet, save for one that he was looking through with a puzzled expression. He raised an eyebrow and reached across the table to hand it to Delilah. She flipped through it and handed it to her husband after examining the few pages it had.

Paul looked up as she held it with two pages open and Maria could barely make out the blue and red logo that went with a picture of the Earth as seen from orbit. Paul glanced at her and then looked at their mother.

"Mom? You know dad's interests pretty well... I know he had final wishes for the disposing of his remains..."

Elizabeth dabbed at the corners of her eyes and was about to say something when the picture in the pamphlet caused her to gasp.

"I... yes I do Paul... he was hoping that his remains could be sent to be scattered from a plane... he so loved sky-diving..."

He handed her the brochure and she held it so that Maria could read of it.

'High Ascension Services For The Deceased - So They Can Share Across All Of Earth'

Mr. Samuel pursed his lips as he saw the brochure that had been delivered by a district manager to them earlier in the week. Part of being a chain operation was that franchises had the requirement to offer standardized contract services that the company had agreed to. He didn't know what to make of it and instead of putting it in a standard service booklet, he had decided that it belonged in the one for cremations. Buried behind all the other, more standard services.

Maria looked up at him.

"Is this for real?" she asked.

Pursing his lips together, he nodded.

"Yes, it is a new service being offered for the remains of the cremated deceased. They are offering to spread ashes into the higher wind streams near the edge of the atmosphere. There are some limitations as to where the remains are released, and they currently schedule flights on a monthly basis. For the one week they scatter remains, the families involved can get specified times and places for release, and even get a live video feed. That is part of their standard service."

Elizabeth inhaled, blinking her eyes.

"How... how high do they go?"

"Ah, Mrs. Isaacs, I believe that their minimum altitude is nine miles."

"Wow," Terrance said softly, "thats amazing."

"How much does this cost?" Delilah asked.

Mr. Samuel sat back with his hands clasped together in his lap.

"It is an expensive option, which we offer at $8,000. We do have leeway for pricing from the originating company for the first three trips and can offer a discount to $6,000 for you."

This was crass commercialization of the sort that Mr. Samuel did not approve, of course. He considered it to be too far along in the convenience section of life, as the remains should be either kept or spread lovingly by someone who cared for the deceased. Not dropped from some aircraft where no one could even see the remains being scattered, except for those on the live video feed. Truly there were aspects of the modern world of which he did not approve.

Maria inhaled watching her mother flip through the brochure, a slight smile starting to break through from the heartache of losing Ben Isaacs.

"Mom, if you can't afford it, I think that Terry and I can help..."

Paul smiled looking at his wife who nodded.

"It isn't that much more, and Delilah and I can help if you need it."

She shook her head.

"No, its not that expensive at all, and I will need to sell some of his skydiving equipment and other things that none of us can use..."

Mr. Samuel could not voice disapproval and no matter what the profit made from this, he felt that it was unseemly. For all of that he knew that there would be some who would want this service. He couldn't understand how anyone could actually make it work as a business venture, but that wasn't his problem. It was only a few days later that the viral video of a car dropped from high altitude let him see exactly what those conditions so near space were like that he knew that funerary services was going to be the least of that firm's income. And he suspected that there were some people willing to pay a much higher price to be buried in their car, dropped from high altitude, which wouldn't even be the start of it, he was sure.

The actual event three weeks later was done and a final farewell ceremony held at a small chapel with live video feed from Ascentech covering the 10 minute window over Florida which was nearly overhead from their father's favorite jump school. They watched as their father's small capsule was cycled out to be dropped and the identifying stickers and barcodes matched to ensure that it was, indeed, their father. Patriotic red, white and blue colors with a prominent white star on the top plus the logo from the company their father worked at was the visual assurance all needed to the chapel to know that their father was where he would have wanted to be. As the capsule was released the on-board cameras followed it as it trailed a steady stream of dust until it was out of sight. At that point the capsule opened with internal timed release mechanisms allowing the reinforced cardboard to tear apart scattering the final remains of Ben Isaacs out over the coast of Florida. In all his remains would be some of the most widely scattered known in human history, joined by nearly 40 other people on the maiden voyage of the slightly refitted ALV I. No one on the ground in that chapel cared that the ALV I, Number 1 would not see many more flights as it was replaced by a far cheaper to operate ALV I Mark 2 model that would see nearly half the cost paid as covering the overhead to Ascentech. What they did know is that their father got the type of final disposal of his earthly remains that he had wanted, and then went above and beyond that while still keeping to his wishes.

That was what mattered, and the personalized send-off of fitting his capsule and the assurance that it was their father gave a final closure to his life for all of them. Honor was respected and a final farewell to a man who had led a good life was supported. Ares understood what this meant from his long tenure amongst mankind. Hermes knew that the best marketing was word of mouth. Others would enter the market they had created, but that would be nearly two years later and by then it would be too late to catch Ascentech.


Brent was working with Kevin and Hermes in Building #2, their custom fabrication and primary assembly building for the ALV-I, which was now in the process of putting together the ALV-I Mark 2 which would not be a prototype but a design type utilizing a small jet system built on the Saberliner design. This wasn't one of the endurance and economy version engines and it needed a thorough overhaul and set of modifications to make it fit well in the ALV-I frame. The two large fuel cells that would sit forward of the cargo area required some redesign of the fuselage from the ALV-I prototype to add a top air scoop to feed the engine that sat over the cargo bay and put exhaust out the rear of vehicle. During that strip down it was an 'all-hands' affair for a week with a total of five engines being torn down into components that were all x-rayed and given vibratory testing. Engines, both partial and fully built, plus parts were arriving over this time not only from the Rats but from custom fabrication shops in the desert southwest. All of that incoming material was in the rear of Building #1 which housed the offices and prototyping area, and now was slowly getting crowded out for bulk storage. Old underground storage tanks in the facility were given an inspection and relined for containment of the jet fuels necessary for the engines, which went a lot faster than actually getting a final jet type put together.

On the stand in front of them was the first Ascentech rebuilt jet and they were looking over its gleaming surfaces, a number of which were mirror smooth.

"How much of this is original at this point?" Hermes asked as he used a small telescoping light to peer past the first exhaust of the jet.

Kevin pulled up a checklist from his inventory system on a small handheld device and used a stylus to key up the master parts assembly for the engine.

"Original and NOS for the frame, spindle and attachment points. All the interior vents and fan blades have been taken to metal and resurfaced to our spec. Original bearings are gone and new ceramic self-lubricating ones are in place. A lot of the things we thought would need custom fabrication were actually made as spares for military training use and there is a good support system for these engines on the civil side. They aren't a modern fuel sipper, but they are more efficient today than they were when designed back in the '50s."

Brent shook his head as the jet was, truly, a relic of a bygone age of design. Yet the ALV I and new dual jet ALV II design didn't require the latest and greatest, although plans called for swapping in newer and lighter weight systems if the cash flow showed up. As he walked around the test stand two technicians brought in a large piece to put on an upright inspection rig so that it could be checked before it was mounted. It was part of the internal housing of the jet and its surface shone with more than chrome but some alloy with titanium in the mix. He walked over to it and got the serial number and pulled it up from the Ascentech inventory system.

"Looks like the forward upper housing shell is ready," he said giving it a looking over. A barcode had been etched on the outer surface of the piece that allowed for it to be quickly identified, even if the serial number was missing, which it was on many of the pieces.

Hermes stepped from behind the engine and walked over to join the other two.

"Lovely," he whispered seeing the curved piece that would have to withstand high and low pressures and temperatures. "Aluminum is fine for so many things, but the original alloy wasn't exactly up to what we needed on its surface. A quad dip half-mil anodized coating to take that abuse will protect the structure no end."

Brent got a message on his device and he called it up. As he read he shook his head and looked at the other two who were giving a final visual inspection of the piece.

"We just got our carbon fiber load in and Beth needs me to sign for it. That is all going to Building #3, right?"

Kevin had taken a set of UV goggles out and was shining a thin blue light onto the surface.

"That's right. Now that we have a good system for putting together ALV I's its time to start something new."

Hermes looked at Brent and smiled.

"I'll come along to make sure the order is what we asked for. Then we'll need some help in hauling the material onto our storage racks as it can't be taken out by standard forklifts. You'll need help getting the conveyor set up adjusted for ground frame stacking"

Brent was looking at the list of materials and let out a low whistle.

"This is an all-day job," he said softly.

"Which is why we have office staff! I'm sure we can get some of the people we dragged out for engine stripping and rebuilding for this. A little exercise never hurt anyone."

Hermes smiled and Brent nodded and found the smile infectious.

"I'll ping Alice, she'll have the shop people rounded up by the time you get there," Kevin said checking over the piece in its upright stand, "I can get one of the assembly techs to help with final inspection.

"Good!" Brent said, "It is going to be a busy day."

"That isn't the half of it," Hermes said, "lets not keep Mrs. Willis waiting too much longer. I know she is more than happy to deal with freight haulers, but its best to keep on her good side."

Brent nodded and they both said good-byes to Kevin who nodded as he was tapping information into his device, not just for the inspection but to relay over to Tad Oliver, who was the day shift foreman, to get someone off of initial assembly of the two endurance jets and to have them get on final inspection.

Brent walked with the long legged Hermes who took out a white piece of cloth and tied it around his forehead and over his curling black hair.

Hermes inhaled and looked up into the sky.

"Do you smell that, Brent?"

Brent inhaled and looked at Hermes.

"The dust you mean? Or is it the diesel fumes?"

Hermes chuckled and looked at him.

"No, those are just where we are now in amongst buildings in a desert trying to create a dream that my sister refuses to let go of. She is the one who is the best of us all, you know? The dust you smell is no longer of the desert but stardust given to us as a reminder, and those fumes are part of what will be the blazing to a new frontier, a new home."

Brent furrowed his brow and the two looked at each other in the large space between the old warehouse buildings.

"What is... are you truly brother and sister? You seem so different?"

Hermes raised his eyebrows and nodded.

"Yes, same father, different mothers. Our father was, at once, wonderful and horrible, both. He took me carousing with him a number of times and I may have known him best amongst all of us. Even his wife, which grated on her no end."

Looking from Hermes and to the sky, motion from the building ahead caught his eye as he saw Regina stepping out the back door followed by Diana and then Bill.

Hermes picked up his pace and went into a slow trot to meet up with them. As Brent watched from behind he saw how graceful that run was and how workman's jeans couldn't hide how easily those legs moved. Of all people he had known Herman Lassiter was one that left him with troubling and mixed feelings because he could not place his finger on what, exactly, was the source of them. With Kevin he had warm respect as a professional, and with Alice he knew there was an attraction, and just a few minutes with Diana left his pulse pounding and his mind unable to find proper words. Aaron was a true professional, good and matter of fact, and Ray Kaplan shared much of that and there were no cold feelings between them and yet no personal affection, either. From personal experience he knew that Tamara's charm was far more than skin deep as she really did come to care for those she brought under her wing in any project. These were all good people, and even with Regina, where so few years meant such difference in outlook, he could admit that she actually was not just attractive but had more of a mind than her looks gave credit for.

Of them all it was only Herman that left him a mixed feeling, and one that he couldn't pin down. He was professional and ingenius to the point of true genius, and yet there was more than just that to him. As he ran it was with the forcefulness of any good runner and with a grace that he had only seen in ballet. Watching he saw that he wasn't just in motion but part of motion and that drew a response of emotion from him. In running Herman wasn't just capable, just professional, but was beautiful and it was the beauty of joy in motion.

Stopping well short of the others who were now greeting Hermes, Brent inhaled.


The blazing heart of motion.

A new future.

A new home.

Forever beckoned to him and he stepped one foot forward and committed to it.

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